Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Talks needed on decriminalizing hard drugs to address opioid crisis, Tam says

Recent data shows a major spike in the number of people dying from toxic illicit drugs due to the pandemic

The delicate politics of drug policy were on full display this week, as Canada’s chief health officer suggested decriminalizing hard drugs should be discussed to address a spike in opioid overdose deaths, while Health Minister Patty Hajdu insisted decriminalization was not a “silver bullet” solution.

Several provinces — including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta — have been seeing concerning increases in overdose fatalities since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which Dr. Theresa Tam says is a crisis that is ”escalating as we speak.”

“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis, which can actually happen to anyone and could also have increased risks right now for people who may be isolating at home,” Tam said during a news conference when asked about the issue on Friday.

Increasing access to a safer supply of drugs and building more supervised consumption sites are among the critical steps needed to reduce opioid deaths, she said.

But she added that all approaches must be considered, including “moving toward a societal discussion on decriminalization.”

A number of officials and groups have called on the federal government to decriminalize hard drugs to address this opioid crisis, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, B.C. Premier John Horgan, as well as medical health officers in British Columbia, Toronto and Montreal.

READ MORE: B.C. premier asks Trudeau to decriminalize illicit drug possession as deaths climb

And with recent data showing a major spike in the number of people dying from toxic illicit drugs due to the pandemic — including a 130 per cent increase in June overdose deaths in B.C. compared to June of last year — the calls for urgent action are getting louder.

B.C.’s Coroner Service has also reported an increase this year in the number of overdose victims with “extreme fentanyl concentrations” present in their bodies.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said when the border closed, the drug supply in Canada became more dangerous as more drugs were made or altered in Canada.

Pandemic restrictions also saw safe injection sites and methadone clinics offering more limited services or closing altogether to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving drug users isolated with more toxic drugs, which is a deadly combination, MacPherson said.

Earlier this week, the federal Liberal government announced steps toward promised changes to federal drug policy, including a 60-day national consultation on supervised-consumption sites with a view to making them better and $582,000 in funding for a new Toronto project to offer a safe supply of opioids to reduce overdose deaths.

Separately, federal prosecutors are now also being instructed to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences that raise public safety concerns and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest, including simple possession cases.

That directive is contained in a new guideline issued by the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, who is independent from the federal Justice Department.

“You cannot arrest your way out of an opioid crisis,” Tam said Friday, applauding the directive as a “step in the right direction.”

But MacPherson says these measures are “too little, too late.”

“COVID has just made everything so much worse and we still seem to be stuck in a position of pilot projects, interim funding, incremental steps towards something that should have happened long ago,” he said.

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition has long been pushing for decriminalization as a public health response that would to stop stigmatizing people with addictions.

“Drug prohibition doesn’t work. Alcohol prohibition didn’t work. You cannot keep pretending that prohibition will work if we try it just a little bit harder, it’s fundamentally flawed,” he said.

“We need to change it, and that’s why you’re hearing calls from medical health officers for decriminalization, for safe supply programs, for legal regulated drugs on the market. We just have to get there sooner, rather than later, otherwise many more people are going to die.”

The Liberal government’s approach to illegal drugs has been shifting toward viewing it more as a public health issue than a criminal one.

In their first mandate, the Liberals legalized the recreational use of cannabis. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected calls to decriminalize possession of other harder drugs, despite a resolution passed at the last Liberal convention calling for such an approach.

When he appointed Hajdu as health minister last November, many advocates of progressive drug policies were encouraged, given Hajdu’s past advocacy and work experience in harm-reduction strategies.

She worked for nine years on the substance abuse and injury prevention program for the Thunder Bay District Public Health Unit, including spearheading the northern Ontario city’s drug strategy.

Asked about decriminalization Friday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she doesn’t believe that there is any “silver bullet” to ending problematic substance use or addressing the opioid overdose crisis.

“It is really a suite of tools that’s needed,” she said, pointing to a number of actions taken by the federal government to address substance use, including supporting supervised consumption sites and access to pharmaceutical-grade medications, also known as safer supply.

“Ensuring diversity of treatment is part of the strategy,” she said.

Government has heard the calls from across the country for decriminalization and it’s something officials are “deliberating,” she said, but added that she believe’s it’s not the only answer.

“It is really making sure that communities have the tools they need and they feel are appropriate to support people who use substances to have healthier lives.”

READ MORE: Federal prosecutors receive new guidelines against prosecuting minor drug offences

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Drugsopioid crisisopioids

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An x-ray tech demonstrates the new equipment in use. (Photo Submitted)
New diagnostic equipment now operational at Sylvan Lake AACS

In August it was announced that Stephen and Jacqueline Wuori donated $850,000 to AACS

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Blackfalds RCMP investigate fatal collision

Preliminary investigation revealed a south bound pickup truck collided with an eastbound car

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta adds 463 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

The central zone has 818 active cases

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Red Fraggle, one of Jim Henson Company’s Fraggle Rock characers, is shown at Time To Play Holiday Show, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, in New York. The Jim Henson Company says production has officially started in Calgary on a reboot of the original 1980s children’s puppet series, which was filmed in Toronto.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Lennihan
‘Fraggle Rock’ children’s puppet series reboot starts production in Calgary

A spokesperson says the new series will stream on Apple TV plus

Black Press file photo
Wetaskiwin RCMP investigate fatal pedestrian collision

A 37-year-old man from Maskwacis has died in hospital as a result of his injuries.

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Yukon’s Minister of Community Services, John Streiker, says he’s outraged that a couple from outside the territory travelled to a remote community this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-POOL
Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail

Metis Nation of B.C. President Clara Morin Dal Col poses in this undated handout photo. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Metis Nation of B.C. *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Metis Nation of B.C. suspends president, citing ‘breach’ of policies, procedures

Vice-president Lissa Smith is stepping in to fill the position on an acting basis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

Former governors general are entitled to a pension and also get a regular income paid to them for the rest of their lives

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Most Read